Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Crayons and aluminum foil changed my life

It was second grade and we were in the school library. Mrs. Truelove, the prettiest school librarian ever, waved a smudgy purple ink-stained copy of a blank hot air balloon in front of us with a challenge: the best decorated hot air balloon would win a five dollar prize. We had a week to prepare our entries.

My friends broke out in excited chatter. Five dollars represented a fortune to most of us. They began plotting their designs featuring sequins and glitter and paint pens… and my heart sank. A trip to the school supply aisle at the local market is a small thing to most, maybe, but for a kid from a perpetually broke family like I was…completely out of reach. My parents spent money on things like powdered milk and thrift store clothes, not razzle dazzle craft doohickeys. How was I going to compete with sequins?

I might not have worried as much if I had a lick of artistic talent, but I couldn’t even draw stick people that weren’t oddly abstract. My mother was an artist but that gene had skipped a generation and my only discernible skill was the rudimentary butterflies I could generate after months of diligent doodling during math lessons. I went home discouraged, knowing that the prize was as good as Jessica’s, a classmate who could draw and had access to store bought glitter.
But that five dollar prize haunted me. I could do so much with that money. The night before the deadline, I couldn’t resist the urge to pull out my mimeographed hot air balloon. I had to at least try. I centered it on our battered kitchen table and dumped my shoebox of broken crayons next to it. Then I sat and stared. I knew Jessica was going to draw a pony with a glittery tail and mane. My horses pretty much looked like my stick people, so that was out. Deciding all I could do was my best and lace it with as much imagination as possible, I hopped up and grabbed the aluminum foil, then set to work.

A butterfly began to emerge from my carefully wielded pencil tip. My quest for perfection dictated the use of a ruler, so the oddly angular wings contrasted sharply with the carefully spaced stripes I outlined in the background. I sorted through the crayons in search of the perfect colors: the prettiest thing I could think of was a sunset, so I sifted out the oranges, yellows, reds, pinks and purples. I applied the colors boldly to the butterfly wings, flecked with geometric shapes, and subtly to the stripes in the background. I shredded the aluminum foil with precision and painstakingly glued it to my picture. When I finished, I sat back, pleased. Even proud. I had a shiny butterfly made out of sunset colors. It might be the only thing I knew how to draw, but I drew it with every ounce of creativity I could tap.

I turned it in and eyeballed everyone else’s offerings. The five dollar prize motivated even the laziest kids to produce something. I don’t remember the other entries, but I remember still feeling pretty proud of what I made. I remember Jessica’s was as good as I expected it to be. And I remember I didn’t care. I felt good about my butterfly balloon.

When our principal read the morning announcements the next day, she encouraged all the students to check the library during lunch to see the winning entries. I raced down the stairs as soon as the bell rang and scanning the wall of balloons, finally found the gold first place sticker: on Jessica’s balloon. Fighting back disappointment, I had just turned to leave when Mrs. Truelove said, “Congratulations.”

“For what?” I asked in confusion.

“You won,” she said.

“No, Jessica did,” I said, and turned and pointed.

“No, Jessica tied,” she said. Then she gently guided me to my own balloon with its own gold sticker.

I was stunned. I remember protesting, “But I didn’t have any glitter.”

Mrs. Truelock smiled. “You didn’t need it.”

That taught me a powerful lesson. Imagination and effort count for something, even in the face of perfect ponies and spending power. As an adult, I’ve been able to engage people on equal footing, regardless of discrepancies in wealth or education because I believe in my potential. I love challenges because I continually rediscover my personal truth that while other people may have better tools, I’ll use the tools I have better. I can make something beautiful, even with simple and ordinary resources.

Crayons and aluminum foil are unconventional agents of change, but we don’t get to choose our defining moments. We act, or fail to, and the choice defines us anyway. I define myself by the people who choose to call me friend, the way my children choose to treat others, and my choice never to see a temporary circumstance as a limit. I'm happy, and I can think of no better measure for my life.


Kimberly said...

What a beautiful message, Melanie!

Alison Wonderland said...

We do the best we can with what we have and that's the best we can do. I'm such a fatalist that I have a really hard time keeping that in mind but I'm working on it.

Heather of the EO said...

You're submitting this to the Annex right?
So well said. I just love it.

charrette said...

I love this post! Your description of the wait, the struggle, the determination, the Aha!...and the WORK. That's how the best ideas are born.

By tapping into your own creativity, you realized your potential...and look at you now! A novelist. How cool is that!

My hubby and I realized a long time ago that money can't buy talent. :)

Nancy said...

This makes 5 - Seven might be pushing it! I love that you remember and write about those defining moments in your life. I remember I could draw in penicl really well, I thought, but when I had to paint it or color it - I ruined it. One of my defining moments is going to the public library when I was about 4 - I still remember the delicious smell of book glue...I've been high ever since.